For pregnant women, whose immune system defenses are naturally lowered, the stakes for getting any type of infection are high. Two recent studies make prevention—against one common and one not-so-common illness—a priority. We talked with Dr. Jane Dimer, a Group Health obstetrics and gynecology specialist, about the Danish study linking pregnant women who have had the flu with autism in their children, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) new recommendations for whooping cough vaccinations following case numbers in epidemic proportions in Washington last year. The bottom line, according to Dimer: “In general, there are things that are preventable and things that are not. I believe that we should all use immunizations more.”
What type of risk does the flu generally pose to a pregnant woman’s health? Flu and things that affect the lung system are particularly dangerous for pregnant women simply because their immune system [and] breathing systems are different, and they are not able to fight off infections as well. The problems can snowball. It also increases the risk of early labor; it’s both a risk to mom and baby.
What should pregnant women know about the study that links the flu to a risk of having a child with autism? The risk is higher in women who get flu than those who get the flu shot. [According to the study] a woman who has had the flu while pregnant is twice as likely to have a child with autism.
Why is whooping cough in the news again? We [in Seattle and King County] are the hotbed for whooping cough. I cannot say for sure why—we used to say that you get the immunization once in your life; then we said every five years. The newest recommendation from the CDC [is] that women get it every pregnancy because that’s when the baby is going to be receiving the antibodies, especially later in the term.
What other preventive measures should pregnant women take? They should wash their hands; they should not smoke or do anything making their breathing system weak. Immunize your loved ones; anyone you’re going to be smooching and who is smooching your baby. They should be immunized for whooping cough and pneumonia—chicken pox needs to be considered as well.
Are flu shot side effects an issue? If you are allergic to eggs, there can be a problem, but people can be desensitized to that. Work with your primary care physician to figure out a solution. [Otherwise,] the most common side effect of a flu shot is a little soreness; Tylenol [acetaminophen] will take care of it, and it’s safe for pregnant women to take.